As expected, the hockey world reacted with passion and volume on both sides of the issue when Eric Gryba of the Ottawa Senators drilled Lars Eller of the Montreal Canadiens with a blow to the head that had devastating results. The remarkable thing about it all is many have digested the hit in super slow motion from every angle imaginable and there’s still no consensus on whether Gryba should be treated as a headhunting predator or a player guilty only of making a legitimate hockey play.
(For the record, your trusty correspondent has seen the play ad nauseam and still has no idea. But there are two things of which I’m sure: First, an NHL ban on all head shots regardless of intent or principal point of contact would have made this decision an easy one. Second, I wouldn’t want to be Brendan Shanahan today. His decision to ban Gryba for Games 2 and 3 of the series will almost certainly see him pilloried from all sides. So…while we’re at it, this one is tough to understand. It either deserved nothing – because there was theoretically nothing wrong with the hit - or a longer suspension – because Gryba was guilty of being reckless. Two games makes him a little bit guilty.)
We can all agree it’s the kind of play that nobody wants to see happen. Anyone, even a Senators fan, who would take any kind of pleasure in seeing Eller bleeding profusely and carted off on a stretcher requires a serious injection of perspective. Whichever way Shanahan decides will likely do little to stop these kinds of hits from happening. Head shots are not a part of hockey, but open-ice bodychecks are. It’s all well and good to say Gryba could/should have known that Eller was in a vulnerable position at that split second and, therefore, should have avoided making contact. But this was not a case of a player providing the lame excuse that he was just “finishing his check.” It was the initial contact that did all the damage that resulted.
So let’s assume Gryba had time to decide that Eller was vulnerable – which might be a stretch. If he does make that determination and lets up on the hit, what happens if Eller chips the puck through the neutral zone to an open man and a goal against the Senators results? Suffice to say that Gryba wouldn’t have to worry about Shanahan sitting him down because his coach would have.
Hate to sit on the fence here, but it did not look from these eyes as though Gryba was making a predatorial, premeditated decision to drill Eller into oblivion. That’s what makes this case so vexing. (And the notion that Gryba is not a repeat offender has nothing to do with it. When Shanahan decides on whether or not to suspend, past record has no bearing, nor should it. Repeat offender status only makes a difference in sentencing, just like in the real world.)
What was far more disturbing and a play that received almost no notoriety – and not even a review from Shanahan - was one on Thursday night that was the polar opposite to the Gryba hit on Eller. If the hit on Eller was arguably a legitimate hockey play with terribly unfortunate consequences, the Dustin Brown hit on Jaden Schwartz was a play that was dastardly and dirty with no consequences.
During the first period of the St. Louis Blues-Los Angeles Kings game, Kings captain Brown violated Rule 48 and just about every rule of decency in the game when he ran at Schwartz in the neutral zone, simultaneously almost obliterating Schwartz’s knee and delivering a head shot that would have been among the most vicious ever had it connected.
With Schwartz skating through the middle of the ice with his head up and the puck on his stick, Brown clearly has lots of time to react. But he hunts Schwartz down, sticks out his knee in an attempt to take out Schwartz’s knee, then as he grazes Schwartz he throws out an elbow/forearm shiver in an attempt to deliver a blow to Schwartz’s head.
The play contained everything that everyone finds insidious about these kinds of plays. It was premeditated, it was vicious and its intent was to separate the player from his senses and injure him rather than to knock him off the puck. It was obscene, it was nasty and it was intentional. And luckily for Schwartz, it was unsuccessful.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why people aren’t just as upset about Brown’s attempted hit on Schwartz as they are about Gryba’s hit on Eller. One could at least make the argument that Gryba’s hit was without intent and was a play that the vast majority of players would make if they were confronted with the same circumstances. The same argument cannot be made for Brown’s play, which was cheap, dirty, cowardly and malicious.
But Gryba got suspended while Brown is free to play Game 3 in the same dirty/reckless way he played Game 2. That’s the real shame here.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.